Innovation in Chicago: BallotReady
// By Jacqueline Brennan
We’ve carefully designed Upswell as an opportunity to elevate local ideas in a national spotlight. As we head to Chicago for Upswell later this year, we have our eye on innovative projects taking place throughout the city. In this installment of Innovation in Chicago, BallotReady—a nonprofit that uses data and technology to prepare constituents for Election Day—gets the vote.
Headquartered in downtown Chicago—less than a half-mile from the Hilton Chicago, BallotReady wants voters to understand that beyond presidential elections, local midterm elections matter. The organization understands how difficult it can be for voters to cast an informed vote on every race and referendum on their midterm ballots, though. As a result, many voters either guess, leave blanks, or opt out of participating in local elections altogether.
To address this, BallotReady offers a free nonpartisan tool through its website that informs voters about every political candidate running for public office nationwide, and every open referendum in their jurisdiction.
“People tend to not vote, or they show up at the polls and don’t always know who they are voting for,” said, Alex Niemczewski, CEO and co-founder of BallotReady, who saw the need for such a resource when she found herself mulling over candidates and measures in the Chicago midterm elections of 2015.
“I wanted to prepare myself for the midterm elections,” Niemczewski said, adding that her co-founder Aviva Rosman was the perfect partner for the project because she had successfully run for a public office on the local school council.
In 2015, the team participated in and won University of Chicago’s Social New Venture Challenge and launched BallotReady in time for that year’s mayoral race. They created and distributed paper voter guides that drove 400 people to the website. The following year, BallotReady was live in 12 states and had over a million visitors to the site. Niemczewski said the word continues to spread rapidly, mostly through social media shares, and that over 7 million people used the site during last year’s election season.
With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and University of Chicago Institute of Politics, BallotReady has now grown to 15 employees and is available during election season in all 50 states.
As their name suggests, the online resource allows users to better understand their voting ballots. Voters enter their residential information through the website and a customized sample ballot is populated that includes details on the background of each candidate and explains each measure that is up for vote. BallotReady’s mission is to “make democracy work the way it should by informing voters on their entire ballot.” As such, they are careful to present nonpartisan facts on every candidate and referendum. To ensure that the information is unbiased, all candidates are researched in the same manner, and information is aggregated from their websites, press clippings, endorsers, board of elections information, and social media.
The simple process is outlined on the homepage where users can dive into the background of every candidate and referendum on their personalized ballot. From there, users can compare candidates based on their stances on issues, biographies, and endorsements. Users have the option of saving their choices as they go and either printing their sample ballot or retrieving it from their smartphones to take with them to the polls.
“Most polling places allow you to take your phone into the voting booth, so people are able to view their saved list or print it,” Niemczewski said, adding that users are also able to share their sample ballots on social media.
In addition to making voters more informed, the site also helps voters come up with a voting plan to encourage them to follow through with going to vote by specifying the time and voting location. The tool is only available during election time. During non-election season, BallotReady researchers gather background on candidates to prepare for the upcoming elections.
Community involvement will be a major focus of Upswell Chicago, and BallotReady’s work intersects with issues like democracy, public policy, advocacy, and voter engagement that we’ll be discussing this November.
Tamieka Briscoe is an associate at Independent Sector.